Netanyahu Plays Games with Peace

Netanyahu Plays Games with Peace

Netanyahu Plays Games with Peace

Despite gestures by Benyamin Netanyahu, a stubborn and aggressive Israel is very far from accepting any formula such as the world envisages for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, notes Patrick Seale.

In Cairo last week, Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is reported to have proposed that Egypt host a summit meeting between himself and Mahmud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas is said to be giving positive thought to the suggestion.

What is one to make of Netanyahu’s proposal? Could this be the start of serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiations? Nothing is less likely.

Netanyahu’s move would seem to have three objectives. First, to isolate and weaken Hamas, which is detested in equal measure — if for different reasons — by Israel, by Abbas’ Fatah faction on the West Bank, and by Egypt.

Israel finds intolerable Hamas’ continued defiance in Gaza; Abbas views Hamas as a dangerous rival for Palestinian leadership; while Egypt sees the Islamic Palestinian movement, closely allied to Egypt’s Muslim Brothers, as posing a security threat to Sinai.

Some such fear — together with pressure from Israel and the United States — has led Egypt to embark on a highly controversial project. With the help, it is said, of the U.S. Corps of Engineers, it is trying to block the tunnels linking Gaza to Egyptian territory by sinking a metal barrier deep into the ground on its side of the border. As the enterprise risks tightening Israel’s cruel siege, it is widely condemned as scandalous by Arab opinion.

Netanyahu’s second motive in proposing a summit meeting with Abbas would seem to be to steal the limelight from George Mitchell, President Barack Obama’s special Middle East envoy, who has been attempting to prod Israelis and Palestinians into negotiations. Netanyahu does not want serious negotiations, as his provocative expansion of settlements in Arab East Jerusalem amply shows. So wide is the gap between his views and those of the Palestinians that his proposed summit with Abbas cannot be intended to launch serious talks but rather to demonstrate their futility.

What Israel fears above all is international intervention to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is very much aware that a consensus, shared by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, has taken shape in favour of a two-state solution. It, therefore, wants to pre-empt any attempt by international actors to lay down a framework for negotiations or to summon the parties to an international conference. Its goal is to impose its own terms on the defeated Palestinians in purely bilateral contacts. This is Netanyahu’s third motive in seeking a summit with Abbas.

Israeli ambitions were clearly revealed at a Russian-organised conference I attended in late December at a hotel on Jordan’s Dead Sea coast. Sponsored by RIA Novosti, the Russian news agency, and by Russia’s Council for Foreign and Defence Policy (CFDP) it seemed to signal Moscow’s ambition to play a greater role in Middle East affairs.

The stars on the Russian side were Yevgeny Primakov, former Prime Minister and veteran Middle East analyst, and Alexandr Saltanov, a Deputy Foreign Minister with special responsibility for the Middle East. A feature of the conference was the clash between the Russians and hard-line Israeli participants.

Primakov argued that the deadlock in the Middle East was due to the passivity of the Quartet (United States, Russia, EU and UN); to divisions among Palestinians; to Obama’s retreat from pressuring Israel; and to Israel’s ambition to preserve the status quo.

But the current status quo was untenable, he believed. Only if there were a radical shift in the U.S. position could negotiations be started. “Why is the U.S. pushing [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai to negotiate with the Taliban, but is preventing contacts with Hamas?’” he asked.

Primakov’s proposed solution was a total freeze on Israeli settlements, firmly backed by the United States, together with a reactivated Quartet, charged with formulating a framework document for resolving the conflict on the basis of the international consensus. Saltanov, in turn, called for a more active role for the Quartet and proclaimed his belief that “the Arab-Israeli conflict was the core reason for the region’s chronic instability.”

Primakov and Saltanov were immediately attacked by Israeli speakers as peddling outdated Soviet views. There was no connection, the Israelis claimed, between the Arab-Israeli conflict and the many other conflicts — in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Sudan – that plagued the region. Israel was “very sceptical about the UN” and had no faith in the capacity of international forces to protect it. It did not want third party intervention: All previous Arab-Israeli agreements had been reached bilaterally. “We will not let Russia taken part in negotiations if it is pro-Arab,” one Israeli declared. “Do you want us to bring Russia in when it is selling weapons to our enemies?”

The Israelis were particularly incensed when Primakov said that Russia had no evidence that Iran had made the political decision to build a nuclear weapon. To destroy Israel, Iran was ready to pay in millions killed, an Israeli argued. Iran should not be allowed to become nuclear capable.

The crucial lesson which emerged from the conference is that a stubborn and aggressive Israel is very far from accepting any formula such as the world envisages for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.